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Jazzland Recordings Presents: Håkon Kornstad

By Tomas Lauvland Pettersen Posted: 17. Mar, 2015

Håkon Kornstad (Photo: Erik Burås)

The Jazzland Recordings Presents concert series at London’s Kings Place continues this week. We’ve talked to saxophonist and opera singer Håkon Kornstad ahead of his London performance on Wed 25th.

Early March marked the start of a new concert series at London’s Kings Place: The Jazzland Recordings Presents series showcases the fine Norwegian jazz label’s top tier roster.

The second concert of the series is slated for Wed 25 March and features saxophonist and classically trained opera vocalist Håkon Kornstad.

Håkon Kornstad has always been a restless spirit, endlessly striving to discover something new. As part of Wibutee, he blended electronica and jazz, and as a solo performer he used looping to expand his already broad sonic palette. All the while, he remained engaged with more traditional jazz forms.

However, for the past number of years he has managed the unlikely feat of blending jazz (via his tenor saxophone skills) with electronic looping and sampling along with his own operatic tenor vocals. This unlikely combination has resulted in some of the most astounding performances you are ever likely to hear.

We have talked to Kornstad ahead of his Kings Place live appearance in early March on what he has in store for his London solo-show as well as 2015 plans:

Improv vs opera

There aren’t that many performers out there that balance two as widely disparate forms of expression as improvised music and opera. In your own view, do you see that you manage to reach out to new audiences by uniting the two styles?

– Yes, I’ve gained a new audience after I incorporated singing in my music. The hardcore purists in the jazz and opera camps might struggle a bit. But for me, jazz has always been a matter of mixing genres that do not necessarily fit together in the first place, and then use improvisation (and good taste, I might add) as glue in the welding process. Now that I have a Master in Opera, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge on how much improvisation and artistic freedom the singers would employ back when the music was new.

Has your focus on developing as an operatic vocalist influenced the instrumentalist side of yourself?

– Definitely, classic singing technique has a much more laborious learning curve than saxophone technique has – the margins between right and wrong are much smaller. But when I do things right, I can clearly feel that I employ my body and breathing apparatus in a fashion that my saxophone technique also benefits from.
On a more musical note, my focus is on singing as closely to the vision of the composer as possible. This makes it incredibly liberating to be my own composer – when I play my own concerts I’m the one calling the shots!

Has your vocal focus affected your compositional approach in any way?

– I have yet to compose my own vocal compositions, but a need to do so has emerged lately. When I go down that line, I’ll benefit from knowing well what my voice likes to sing. Much of the new music that is composed is not always so singable, and a lot of contemporary composers seem to have an aversion for melody lines – a fright of being perceived as classical composers. I won’t be one of those – I promise!

Ancient samples

Photo: Erik Burås

What do the Kings Place audience have in store next week – will you debut any new repertoire in London?

– I’ve yet to decide whether I’ll present brand new material at King’s Place. This is how I’ve approached my live performances lately: I’ll lay down sax lines, build up a sonic foundation with a loop machine and then sing antique arias and classical songs on top of this. Virtually like fantasies over originals, or as if I was to use classical song as an ancient sample on top of new, improvised music.

Do you see that you already have an established audience in London or is the Kings Place performance more of a pioneering work to create a new base of followers?

– In 2013 I performed solo and in a duo setting with my sax colleague Joshue Redman in Wigmore Hall. Last year, I sang during the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree lighting and with my ensemble in St Martin-in-the-Fields. I feel that there’s a growing audience in London that’s following me and what I do – that’s extremely rewarding, given the multitude of cultural events on offer in the city.

Are there any territories that have proven to be particularly receptive to your form of expression?

– No particular territories in that respect, no, but I’ve never experienced such positive feedback as I’ve had after I introduced my own take on operatic jazz. Whether it’s the US, Russia, Eastern Europe, UK or Turkey – all countries have welcomed me with open arms and re-invited me after my concerts. I’ll just have to keep it up and deliver performances that are a bit better than the preceding ones.

New opera: Adam & Eve

How do you envision balancing your roles as an improvising musician with that of an operatic singer in productions such as Cecilie Ore’s ‘Adam & Eve’?

– Hard to tell, really. Many opera purists have questioned me whether my singing career is for real – I have answered with a resounding yes to all of them. I’ve already performed full-length operas (as Ferrando in Cosi fa tutte) and received praise for this. I continue to work hard and I’m taking voice lessons in Oslo and New York so that I can improve as a classical singer. Opera productions are exciting processes to be a part of, but they can also be juggernauts that lay claim to much of my time for periods of time. For the future, I hope that I can do a combination of own projects and some opera productions and classical concerts. The path emerges as I walk it, but eventually, it all depends on me reaching my vocal potential.

What’s your 2015 agenda like? What releases, concerts and collabs can we look forward to this spring, summer and autumn?

– 2015 has begun with a string of solo concerts across Europe. I’ve also started to bring a piano player with me to some of my performances, and I’m planning to expand the programme with some pure classical arias. This spring, I’m partaking as a singer in Cecilie Ore’s new opera ‘Adam & Eve’ which will be performed at the Bergen International Festival, the Ultima – Oslo Contemporary Music Festival and several international festivals as well. Come summer, I’ll perform solo and with my ensemble at the festival circuit at home and abroad. Autumn sees the release of the first full-length Kornstad Ensemble album that we’ve been working on for some time now. 2015 looks set to be an exciting year, that’s for sure!

Jazzland Recordings Presents: Håkon Kornstad

When: Wednesday, 25 March 2015 – 8:00pm
Where: Kings Place – Hall Two

Jazzland Recordings was founded by pianist/keyboardist/producer/composer Bugge Wesseltoft in 1996 and has since established itself as a key outlet for Norwegian jazz and improvised music. It is currently a subsidiary of Universal Music Group and operated as a standalone label. Key acts include Sidsel Endresen, Bugge Wesseltoft, Beady Belle, Atomic, Håkon Kornstad and Ola Kvernberg.


The Jazzland Recordings Presents series is supported financially by Music Norway.


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